pirate wires #64 // kyiv under siege, the corporate front, and how to take a breath and think when nukes are on the table
Kyiv. Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin initiated a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a free country on Russia’s western border with abundant natural gas, oil, arable land, and fresh water — essential for Crimea, which was itself annexed by Russia in 2014 and has been dying of thirst ever since. Of even greater significance, or at least for the last few hundred years, Ukraine’s eastern border extends along the Eurasian Steppe, an open plain that spreads across the entire continent, and presents a massive front along which any Western European land assault would be disastrous for Moscow. For these reasons, Russia has always considered Ukraine a critical strategic asset, and, realistically, invasion was always inevitable. But after Ukrainians toppled their corrupt, pro-Kremlin government in 2014, the “threat” of liberalization and western integration convinced Putin to finally roll the dice. He immediately began in the Black Sea, and the world did nothing. Now he’s in Kyiv. International, and especially European reaction to the invasion has been significant. This in turn catalyzed further Russian escalation over the weekend. Following a series of aggressive economic sanctions, Putin ordered his military command to put the country’s nuclear deterrence forces on high alert, an implicit threat of cataclysmic proportion. In unblinking response, the nations of Western Europe committed to remilitarization, and began to arm Ukraine.
Thoughts and prayers, Fukuyama.
Gazing through a fog of war exacerbated by our Twenty-first Century information chaos, the first question is simply what is even real? But then, with no formal Ukrainian alliance, how should we respond to an aggressive nuclear superpower marching on Europe’s second-largest country? There’s the government piece, with all the old tradeoffs and strategy, but with the relative ease of the internet’s global reach, there’s a new wartime dynamic we really need to think about — the sovereign CEO.
With a story so powerful as a fight to the death for liberty, and a victor in Ukraine so clearly desired by most of the free world, many of us are understandably primed to believe all manner of feel-good stories, any number of which could be fake, and many of which we now know are fake. A widely-shared video of the Ghost of Kyiv, a Ukrainian jet fighter who single-handedly downed as many as six Russian jets, was cribbed from a video game in “honor” of the pilot. From the best I can tell, we don’t yet know if the fighter himself exists. 13 Ukrainian border guards on Snake Island told the commander of a Russian warship to “go fuck yourself” after he demanded their surrender, and were promptly all killed. At least, this is what we thought for about 24 hours before the story unraveled. Several pictures of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy dressed as a soldier are months-old, countless stories of confrontation between civilians and military have been fabricated, and in terms of who is winning, when, and how, there are no shortage of images shared without verification. Here, a single picture captioned in two diametrically opposite directions:
At this point, I’m not even sure the above image is from Ukraine. It’s obviously no longer rational to trust viral information online, and especially not in a time of war. Still, viral mis- and disinformation has so far been basically superficial, and there are real-world analogs for every piece of debunked fiction I’ve seen: Ukraine has surprised the world with its ability to hold airspace, Ukrainian soldiers are dying all around the country fighting for their freedom, the Ukrainian president did refuse to flee, and is now in a flak jacket staring death in the face as Putin floods the country with assassins.
It’s certainly possible stories of more significance have been invented from nothing, and critics of overwhelming and in many cases unquestioning pro-Ukrainian sentiment are right to point this danger out. But beyond all the cheering, and the wild takes, and the endless propaganda, obsession with distorted war-time ephemera feels almost suspiciously beside the point. The facts still just reduce to the following: Putin wanted Ukraine, Ukraine wanted sovereignty, Putin, with the help of Belarus and the tacit support of China, invaded Ukraine. He has further threatened all of his European neighbors with invasion, and the rest of us with nuclear war. These are insane acts of aggression that absolutely cannot stand.
In response, Western economic sanctions have been immense. They have also been escalating, now to the point of severing Russia from the global financial system. The isolation of Russia further extended into the physical world, with Europe and Canada closing airspace to all Russian aircrafts, commercial and private. But despite this past week’s many echoes of World War II, it’s been 8 decades since the Axis Powers surrendered. In that time the internet happened, and it came to dominate most aspects of our world. Naturally:
When Y Combinator’s Michael Seibel wondered aloud what the technology industry could do, not to help Ukrainians but explicitly to deter Putin, he introduced an important question for a new industry, in a new world, that has not yet been tested by serious war. With software on every phone in Russia, is it not conceivable that Silicon Valley could end this thing right now?
Well, no. It’s complicated, and not only ethically.
Technology executives with meaningful reach in Russia are presently faced with the multi-front challenge of balancing operation in the country with the safety of their employees and at least some commitment to platform openness. Nonetheless, on Sunday, Meta’s Nick Clegg announced Facebook was fact-checking Russian propaganda… in Russia, in apparent, partial defiance of Putin’s wartime demand for increased censorship across all major social media platforms. Meta has since blocked Russian media from Facebook. Not, I think, the censorship Putin was hoping for.
According to the New York Times, Apple, TikTok, and Spotify acquiesced completely to Russia’s demands, with “steps” toward compliance from Google, and total defiance from Twitch and Telegram. Yes, western software runs on every phone in Russia. But the Russian government can — and, after this, almost certainly will — shut it all down. A great week for Beijing.
Still, Putin doesn’t own the stars.
Elon Musk entered the fray last week with a vow that SpaceX would defend the International Space Station if the Russian government tried to drop it out of orbit — an incredible threat mostly now forgotten in this month of incredible threats. Then, more significantly, Musk guaranteed free Ukrainian internet access via Starlink after the besieged government pleaded for his help on Twitter. Less than 48 hours later he delivered units.
This is awesome. This is also approaching uncharted territory.
For founders or software engineers considering any sort of participation in a war our country is not technically a part of, it’s first important to soberly assess risks. This is not a LARP. This is not a performative black square on Instagram in the middle of a widely-popular domestic social movement. This is war. As Balaji helpfully unpacks, when contemplating action against a belligerent foreign power you need to be cognizant of potential consequences, both for you and your team (thread begins below).
Americans are a nation of individuals who mostly do whatever we want, which is great. Love this for us. But my sense is we really don’t understand autocracy. A company operating in the US while headquartered in an autocratic state like Russia or China is necessarily always acting on behalf of its government. Russian and Chinese leadership likewise interprets the actions of our companies as the actions of our state — of America. It’s not entirely clear which of our companies are in touch with the Biden administration. Both Meta and SpaceX do work with the government, and it’s difficult to imagine they aren’t presently communicating. I hope this is the case. But most tech companies and software engineers do not have a relationship with the government, and any action of meaningful consequence unilaterally taken by tech companies could complicate, perhaps dangerously, the entire nation’s foreign policy.
Ukraine for me is not a challenging moral question. I stand for freedom. But there are obviously complex, existential tactical questions we now need to consider. The ongoing intellectual feud over whether Russian tanks in Kyiv blowing shit up is actually our fault, really, when you think about it, is no such question. This argument, which has captured elements of both the right and left, holds America and Ukraine responsible for Russia’s invasion — an odd position for the populist right, which is generally not interested in “why” murderers murder, and the far left, for which an aversion to “victim blaming” has transcended belief into identity.
Critics of America argue we should have refused a free Ukraine’s request for formal entrance to the west. Our neglecting to do so threatened Putin. But this argument is not legitimate for the same reason our country, with a military many times more powerful than Russia’s, is not currently fighting in Kyiv: we all have nuclear bombs, and no one is invading a country with nuclear bombs — not from that wide open Ukrainian front or anywhere else.
With the exception of a few pathetically-queer obsessed, literally authoritarian intellectuals who have improbably made their way to Tucker Carlson, nuclear bombs, of course, are all most of us are really thinking about.
While I do share concern over technologists participating in this war out of step with American strategy, as well as American strategy itself, my suspicion is most criticism of intervention comes less from a place of concern over caution and efficacy than it does from an aversion to western intervention entirely. There is broad concern over sanctions, for example, with increasingly the perspective that the free world, by refusing to do business with Russia, is driving Putin to nuke us. This is a wild framing of the problem that basically hands the world to lunatics.
Remember, we’re still not even talking about military intervention. Nobody serious is talking about military intervention. Taking all action off the table as Russia storms Europe because Putin has nuclear weapons would preclude us from taking action in opposition to anything he does in the future, including for example invasion of the Baltic states, Finland, Sweden, and Poland — all of which, in addition to our own annihilation, he has threatened. If not now, when is it acceptable to sanction a belligerent autocrat with nukes? Because today there are several belligerent autocrats with nukes, and they all want to invade their neighbors. A position of acquiescence to every asshole with a bomb who wants oil, land, and glory is not tenable because there will always be an asshole with a bomb who wants oil, land, and glory.
I’m going to get shit for this, but it seems to me our government has so far exercised as much caution as is possible with stakes this high. Less controversially, I’ve further found the heart of technologists across the world inspiring, if not nearly so inspiring as the men and women of Kyiv fighting for their lives. Our approach to this crisis is not ideal because there is no ideal in an impossible situation, and every situation in which nuclear war is a risk is impossible. But alternative strategies in further aggression seem worse, and if bottomless appeasement leads to anything other than a Russian Europe I’m all ears.
Then, does a Russian Europe not matter? If that’s what we’re really talking about, then okay. I mean, it sounds awful. But say that. Make the case. Let’s have that conversation. Because the bullshit isn’t getting any of us anywhere.
War is hell. My dad was a marine in Vietnam and still can’t talk about it, a trauma that shaped his life, a trauma that lived inside our walls — I don’t want war. No serious person wants war. But decades ago, America began a long walk home, and the old world began to thaw. Now war is back on the table whether we want it or not. Crimea, Hong Kong, Afghanistan, Ukraine. Short of total American isolation, we will continue to face challenges of this kind, and the further America isolates the more rapidly these challenges will appear.
Our grandparents faced a similar conundrum. They chose to change the world. Our leaving will absolutely change it back, only now with weapons of mass destruction. Will we really be safe across these oceans forever? Economic conflict is clearly now enough to precipitate actual apocalyptic threats. We are a global economy. Even in a world of isolated America there will always be economic conflict.
Yes, a world without nukes would be great, but the question is how do we live in the real world? The only way to face threats so incredible is cautiously, soberly, and together. But it seems to me we do have to face them. Sorry.
Excellent thoughtful article. I have family in Kyiv and this has been a terrifying event. Whatever happens next has global implications. Europe is forever changed. After watching Putin's speech a week ago it feels he is incredibly bitter and unhinged. He has set the Russian economy back decades and caused the death of likely thousands of Ukrainian and Russians for a war he can never completely win. It's all just incredibly tragic. But my God the Ukrainians are amazing.
I don’t know how this doesn’t escalate with a living Putin. And at the same time it doesn’t seem quite real, which worries me a lot. If a country is a group of people who can be relied upon to act in a certain way then… I don’t know if we still are that with fracture and social media. We already spontaneously form mobs and protests at a breathtaking rate and immense scope to cancel people for saying impolitic things. Unlike Yemen or Syria this is unfolding on TikTok with a population that has a lot of English speakers. There could very well be a high volume of high def video evidence of war crimes with internet sleuths identifying the perpetrators. That’s not a predictable, lock-step system. No one has the power to just shut that off. Hope someone smarter than me is on this. I just don’t see how Putin is in office in a world where this ends well. I’d hoped that Zylinski would give up parts of Eastern Ukraine that are already ethnically Russian and in turn get Putin’s blessing on NATO and EU membership but that seems increasingly unlikely. Like you said, this has to be confronted, but Jesus I hope whoever is in charge of our nuclear countermeasures has a steady hand.